You might have heard of Wi-Fi 6E — I mentioned it briefly in this piece about Wi-Fi 6 as a whole. This post focuses on the details of this new frequency band and answers questions I received from readers in the past couple of months.
So, yes, you’ll learn all that matters about this new Wi-Fi standard here. And I’ll update this post when more information becomes available.
What is the deal with Wi-Fi 6E?
In a nutshell, Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6 that operates in the new 6 GHz frequency band, instead of the traditional 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.
Other than that, it has all the characteristics of Wi-Fi 6, including OFDMA and Target Wake Time (TWT). The speed caps remain too. You’ll get 600 Mbps per stream via an 80 MHz channel, or 1200 Mbps via a 160 MHz channel.
So then why do we even need it, you might wonder.
Why do we need 6E?
We don’t. We want it.
To deliver its top speeds, Wi-Fi 6 needs to operate in the 160 MHz, or at least 80 MHz, channel width. There’s only so much space in the 5 GHz spectrum. We only get a couple of 160MHz channels out of it — only two available in the U.S. to be exact — and they all encompass the space of narrower (40 MHz and 20 MHz) channels.
Since there are a ton of existing older Wi-Fi clients that only use 40 MHz, or 20 MHz channels, all home networks have to struggle between compatibility and performance.
Wi-Fi 6E deals with this spectrum shortage by using an entire frequency band for itself, opening its hardware to seven new 160 MHz channels, or fourteen 80 MHz channels. As a result, Wi-Fi 6E devices will operate freely without the need to accommodate older Wi-Fi standards. In other words, it doesn’t have to use 20 MHz, 40 MHz, or even 80 MHz channels.
To understand this concept, imagine if a Wi-Fi band is a freeway, then channels are lanes, and we have this crude analogy: The 2.4 GHz includes only small lanes for bikes; the 5 GHz uses wider lanes for cars, buses, and trucks, and the 6GHz (Wi-Fi 6E) only has special tracks for a high-speed rail system.
And that brings us to the main shortcoming of Wi-Fi 6E.
Wi-Fi 6E vs. Wi-Fi 6: New hardware required
To use the new 6 GHz band, you’ll need a new broadcaster (a router) and clients (phones, laptops, etc.) that support it. It’s similar to the fact that you can’t drive a car, or ride a bike, on rail tracks. So none of the existing Wi-Fi equipment, including the latest Wi-Fi 6 routers, will work with this band.
(Initially, it was rumored that some new Wi-Fi 6 routers already have Wi-Fi 6E-ready hardware, which can be activated via firmware updates. However, this seems more and more unlikely as time goes by.)
This shortcoming is the same as the move from a single band (2.4 GHz) to dual-band (2.4 GHz + 5 GHz) that took place back when Wi-Fi 4 debuted in 2009.
A new type of tri-band equipment
Similar to the dual-band case, for backward compatibility, you can expect any Wi-Fi 6E-capable router to also have a 5 GHz band, and likely a 2.4 GHz band, built-in. In other words, it will be a tri-band router.
Yes, we have existing tri-band broadcasters — like the Asus GT-AX11000, Netgear RAX200, or TP-Link AX11000 — but they all have one 2.4 GHz band and two 5 GHz bands, mostly to address the bandwidth issue.
Come to think about it, chances are you’ll soon find quad-band routers, those like the ones mentioned above that also have a 6 GHz band.
Since a Wi-Fi connection takes place in a single band at a time, so far, we’ve only needed dual-band (2.4 GHz + 5 GHz) on the side of clients. However, with the addition of the 6 GHz band, future Wi-Fi receivers will also be tri-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 6 GHz).
That’s because, for 6 GHz band to be successfully adopted, networking vendors need to keep devices compatible, regardless of the Wi-Fi frequencies being available at any given time. And incorporating multiple bands within the hardware is the only way to achieve that.
Wi-Fi 6E vs. other Wi-Fi standards
Does 6E have other shortcomings?
Yes. And shorter range sure is one of them.
In the world of radio broadcasting, higher frequencies always mean shorter ranges. FM and AM radio stations broadcast in frequencies much lower than Wi-Fi.
The 5GHz band clearly has a shorter range than that of the 2.4GHz one. So, the 6 GHz band’s will be behind that of the 5 GHz band, though it’s not clear by how much. But the shorter range means it’s probably not going to be a good band to work as the backhaul in a mesh system.
Another obvious shortcoming is the cost. Tri-band and quad-band hardware require more materials and sure will be more expensive. And, again, keep in mind you need both broadcasters and clients of the same standard to enjoy Wi-Fi 6E.
When will I see real Wi-Fi 6E hardware?
That said, you can expect Wi-Fi 6E-capable routers from leading networking vendors as early as the end of 2020 or early 2021. Both Asus and Netgear have told me they were planning on releasing their first 6 GHz broadcasters by late 2020, though that’s not a sure thing.
On the client-side, however, you will likely have to wait much longer, till the next releases of mainstream smartphones and laptops. So the earliest time you can have a real-world Wi-Fi 6E connection might be by the second half of 2021.
And then, you probably can also upgrade existing computers via adapters, similar to the case of Wi-Fi 6.
There you have it. Wi-Fi 6E is indeed around the corner.
You’ll soon hear a lot of rosy things about this standard. The new 6 GHz band is a great marketing tool — who wouldn’t want faster Wi-Fi?
Networking vendors will jump on the chance and mention all sorts of snazzy references, like how Wi-Fi 6E is great for 8K video, VR, 5G, low-latency, gaming, and so on. Some of that might be true, but most will be just hype and exaggeration.
The truth is we won’t know how Wi-Fi 6E pans out till it’s out. For now, one thing is for sure: You won’t be able to use Wi-Fi 6E with any existing devices. And that’s a huge downer. My guess is the earliest time we can use this new standard in a meaningful way is likely the beginning of 2022.
When it comes to Wi-Fi, it’s always getting connected at the time of need, and not having the latest and greatest, that matters. And for the former, the existing 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands will do for a long time.
So don’t hold your breath and wait for Wi-Fi 6E, go ahead and get the equipment that serves your needs today. It’s always a good idea to give a new standard some time to fully mature before upgrading to it anyway.